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Investigating the Grey Areas of the Chinese Communities in Southeast Asia

Arnaud Leveau

The Papers

The Triads: Past and Present

T. A. Bancroft

Texte intégral


1In its most common form, the collective term triad refers to underground criminal fraternities. These fraternities are almost exclusively made up of Chinese membership, and although having originated in Mainland China, these societies have followed the migratory movements of the Chinese across the globe.

2Originally the triads were formed with political aims in mind, but over time they degenerated into criminal societies driven by greed. Today they are both opportunist and organized criminals whom mainly prey on their own ethnic communities, thriving on the proceeds of crimes such as drug trafficking, money laundering, illegal gambling, prostitution, counterfeiting the products of intellectual property, and other forms of racketeering.

3This paper will attempt to examine in brief the origin of the triads, and their progression to present-day criminal fraternities, particularly in Hong Kong. Attention will be paid to their modus-operandi and the true extent of their continuing threat to public security.

Origins of the Triads

4Given the mystery surrounding the triads, there exist numerous myths and opinions on their true origin. As stated in CHU (2001), one popular legend claims that the triads were formed by five monks from the infamous Shaolin monastery in China, who were the only survivors when their temple was burned to the ground by the T’sing Emperor Kangxi (Hong Hei). Given the notariety of their fighting skills, it is claimed that Kangxi believed that the monks might rise against the T’sing and therefore he sought to anilhate them as a precautionary move against rebellion. Legend holds that the surviving monks spread across China and established five major lodges with the aim of overthrowing the T’sing. One of these lodges, located in Guangdong, known as the “Sam Hop Wooi” (United Three Society), became quite wealthy and powerful, and in the nineteenth century its influence began to spread around the world – including Hong Kong.

5A more plausible and universally accepted academic theory as laid out by LIU (2001) and Morgan (1960), is that an underground resistance was formed by Ming Dynasty (Han) loyalists in the 17th century, including some from the defunct Ming Imperial Army, to resist the foreign T’sing (Manchurians) rulers. The T’sing, at least initially, are referred to in literature as having been tyrants, who resorted to execution when dealing with dissidents, including Buddhist and Taoist priests, and as such the underground resistance received wide public support and grew in influence. The aim of the resistance was to oust the T’sing and restore the Ming.

6As a result of the Manchurian’s control and force in the north, many of the remaining Ming supporters fled to the coastal areas of the south of China. Many in fact sought refuge in Buddhist monasteries, namely in Kwangsi, Guangdong & Fukien, and it was therefore in the south that the resistance to the T’sing was most concentrated.

7With the reign of T’sing Emperor Kangxi, which didn’t end until 1723, Manchurian control of the south strengthened and eventually drove the resistance underground. It was at this time that the Manchus began referring to the resistance societies as the “Tin Dei Wooi” (Heaven and Earth Society). Such dominance by the Manchurians prompted the use of identifying passwords and signs to ensure the recognition and security of its members (Morgan, 1960), which were until recent times still common place in the triad societies we know today.

8It is claimed that this underground resistance was initially mostly passive, with a strong loyalty among its ranks, but later the movement is known to have became involved in various uprisings, including among others the Shantung Revolt in 1774, the Water Lily Uprising in 1797, and the Formosa Uprising in 1868 (LIU, 2001).

9When speaking of the origins of the triads, Morgan (1960) stated clearly that, “the (triad) society is not in itself a completely independent association conceived at any specific date or resulting from any one particular incident in Chinese history. Secret societies dedicated to the restoration or retention of Chinese rule over China had existed for hundreds of years…”.

10It is of interest to note that the Manchurians believed in Confucianism while the Han were predominantly Buddhists and Taoists. Many Buddhist and Taoist priests were killed by the Manchurians during their attempts to wipe out the underground resistance, and the public were often banned from worshipping in their temples. This lends to the theory that the Buddhist and Taoists sympathized with the resistance, and as such perhaps the Shaolin theory is not entirely mythical.

11It was the important Chinese historical figure Dr. SUN Yat-sen, a triad of senior standing (426 of the Kwok On Wui), who was behind the final push in the south to dispatch the Manchurians. Dr. SUN was the head of the then Republican political party, and had canvassed support not only within China, but in Chinese communities overseas in the United States, Japan and Hong Kong (Morgan, 1960). The ensuing rebellion of 1911 led to the proclaiming of a republic in 1912, and hence the triads finally achieved the political aim for which the secret societies had been originally formed.

12The assistance of the triads to the cause of the rebellion, and the Republican party, was recognized by the new government in China, which provided them with much power and influence – both in the public and private sectors. As Morgan (1960) states, this meant that it was often the case that anyone with ambition, either in business, the military, or the general civil service, usually joined the triad fraternity to ease their advancement up the ladder.

13Power corrupts, and after finally removing the T’sing, the resistance degenerated into criminal fraternities. For lack of better terminology, the resistance became guns for hire over the course of time, and hence the transformation from an underground resistance with political aims to a criminal brotherhood.

14Moreover, as one can see, this criminal brotherhood was also strongly woven into the prevailing society, its government, its military and even its private sector franchises.

15To this day, being a member of a triad society in Mainland China is not strictly a criminal offence. The laws there remain very ambiguous on this issue.

Hong Kong

16Although triads originated in Mainland China, as one author put it, Hong Kong is now the undisputed capital of triad operations. The literature available on the proliferation of the triads also frequently concentrates on Hong Kong, which was essentially the closest “port of call” for the resistance movement when being forced out by the Manchurians in the various rebellions in Mainland China. Waves of triads descended on Hong Kong from the mid-1800s until the establishment of the republic. Historical records maintained by the Hong Kong Government show that as early as 1842 British colonists had noted that these secret societies wielded significant power among the local population.

17These early triads gained control of local ethnic and labour associations, preying frequently on recent immigrants from the Mainland - who were as a group very vulnerable, as they were mostly ignored and unprotected by the colonial administration. The triads also engaged in extortion on an ever increasing scale, particularly in the coolie trade. Records also show that even in these early days the triads were found to have infiltrated the Police and various government departments in Hong Kong.

18In 1845 the first law outlawing triad membership was enacted, which boasted penalties of branding, three years of imprisonment and eventual deportation from the colony (Morgan, 1960).

19Hong Kong was also used as a base for Dr. SUN Yat-sen’s Republican party, where they planned strategies and rallied support for the eventual overthrowing of the Manchurians, setting up the first locally headquartered Hong Kong triad society in the process – the Chung Wo Tong. The Chung Wo Tong was the foundation for what later became the powerful Wo group of societies (Wo Hop To, Wo Shing Yee, Wo Shing Wo etc).

20The triads grew in strength and number rapidly during the early years in Hong Kong, and as stated in Morgan’s (1960) account, between 1914 and 1939 the triads settled down and made the transformation into the criminal organizations they are now known to be. That is to say that they slowly began to lose their patriotic appeal and public support, as their true face became revealed.

21During this time many new societies developed and then fractioned, and by the early 1930s, eight basic groups controlled Hong Kong: the Wo, the Rung, the Tung, the Chuen, the Shing, the Fuk Yee Hing, the Yee On, and the Luen. They were very organized, loyal and disciplined, and had by that time split the colony up among their groups geographically, or to use the Americanism – they had established their respective “turfs”.

22Morgan (1960) states that pre-1941, the percentage of Triad membership in Hong Kong was, 8-9%, but due to further in-fighting, greed, and fractioning, the figure grew to an alarming 15% by 1958.

23Indeed the power of the triads, and their significance in numbers, led the Japanese to seek their collaboration during the invasion of Hong Kong in 1941. It is an accepted fact that the Wo group in particular did extend their influence in assisting the Japanese, including acting as informers concerning any anti-Japanese activities in the colony after the invasion.

24Succeeding the war, the triads continued to excel, and became even more engaged with crime, such as organized robberies, burglaries, prostitution, and the operating of illegal divans for the ingestion of dangerous drugs – particularly Opium, and later Heroin. They also effectively extended their extortion activities to cover the transportation network, and the public markets (Booth, 1999).

25The Police were particularly unorganized at this stage, succeeding the war, and thus the triads had quite a free reign to run their illegal activities. This was bolstered by yet a further influx of triads from Mainland China when the communists gathered momentum against the nationalists (KMT), sending thousands of refugees fleeing southward into Hong Kong.

26As mentioned earlier, much of the military in the Mainland also held membership to a triad society, and it was during this push by the communists that the nationalists reached out to the societies for help in repelling them. In Guangdong, Lt. General Kot Siu Wong was tasked with this responsibility, which led to the establishment of a group of societies which became known as the 14 (sap-sei-wooi), and later the 14K (14 from their headquarters address in Po Wah Road in Guangdong, and K from Karat – a symbol of hardness). Many of this group later fled to Hong Kong when the communists swept to power, and to this day, 14K remains one of the strongest triad societies in Hong Kong and internationally. Their switch from being patriots to criminals was rapid.

27It is interesting to note here that when Mao Tse Tung’s communists were victorious in 1949, the triad nationalists were dispersed from China, not only to Hong Kong but around the world: Macau, Thailand, Burma, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Perth being good examples.

28In 1958, with approximately 300,000 members, Morgan (1960) estimated the overall revenue from triad activities to be approximately HKD$ 40 Million. That is a staggering amount for those times.

29The golden years for the triad societies began to come to an end however in the 1960s, as the public finally began to see these associations as nothing more than bands of criminals, and the Police finally started to take concrete proactive action to stem their control. Continuous raids and refining of the laws began to take effect, with the Police targeting the heads of the societies for arrest and deportation.

30There has been much speculation that the Police and Triads cooperated extensively in Hong Kong when it came to controlling social order during the 60s and early 70s. According to an account by Booth (1999), more than one third of the Hong Kong Police Force held affiliation with the triads during this time – although I would opine that this figure is inflated.

31In any event, conspiratorial behavior between the Police and the Triads was mostly eradicated by the late 70s, with the advent of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in 1974 – an independent anti-corruption law enforcement body. This may have reduced the influence of the triads somewhat, however they were far from eradicated.

In 1985 the Police were worried enough to re-establish a Triad and Crime Group, which was the forerunner of the Organized Crime and Triad Bureau, the current body investigating triad related crimes in Hong Kong today. According to Police figures, triad related crimes rose from 7000 in 1953, to 60,000 in 1993. By 1996, figures revealed that there were believed to be as many as 52,000 triad members in Hong Kong, in more than 50 gangs, with the Sun Yee On, the 14K, the Wo Shing Wo being the most prominent.

32The current characteristics and activities of the prominent societies can be summarised as follows:

33The 14K:

  • formed after WWII and the Chinese Civil War by the nationalists fleeing the communist regime;

  • reportedly the largest society on an international basis, with approximately 20,000 members in Hong Kong;

  • has solid organization and management;

  • involved in many aspects of organized crime, and in Hong Kong they are particularly involved in night club and mini-bus extortion, counterfeit goods production and sales, and interfering in property sales (public queuing incidents). They are also very active in the casino industry in Macau, including protection, and loansharking activities.

34The Sun Yee On:

  • the largest and most powerful group in Hong Kong, believed to have 25,000 members, and 56,000 members worldwide;

  • has sub-organizations in the USA – particularly the coastal cities of New York, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco;

  • originates from Chiu Chau and Hakka clans;

  • sophisticated criminals with expertise in drug trafficking, money laundering, computer software piracy, migrant smuggling, and credit card fraud;

  • very active in protection of entertainment premises in Tsim Sha Tsui area of Kowloon;

  • often act as hired guns to whoever can pay – sometimes other triad societies.

35The Wo Shing Wo:

  • triad group with longest history in Hong Kong, with over 20,000 members;

  • Wo Hop To is a large division of the WO’s with significant illegal gambling operations in San Francisco;

  • mainly Cantonese speakers;

  • in Hong Kong the group is involved with illegal gambling, counterfeit activities, general extortion, cigarette smuggling, car theft, the protection racket in the decoration business, and drug trafficking.

36During a recent interview concerning the current triad activities in Hong Kong, an officer from a Police anti-triad team expressed that the triads of today are still very active, but for the most part have become very fragmented over the years due to greed, and as a result of the Police suppressing their activities. He went onto say that the days of oath taking ceremonies and swearing allegiances had all but disappeared, and instead those with money have become the defacto leaders. In simple terms, money attracts followers. Finally he added, that despite this fragmentation, the triads were still very much a force to be reckoned with, and that particularly during the recent economic crisis, a rise in recruitment was notable.

Recent Triad Activities of Interest

37It is quite clear that the triads of today are mainly economically driven, and if allowed, they will extend their hands into any enterprise with which they can make profit – be it legal or illegal. In turn, they will take all necessary steps to protect their enterprise, which at times has led to great strife and brutal killings.

38The film industry in Hong Kong is a good example of a profitable enterprise with which the triads have become increasingly involved. Given the high profits possible, the triads, which initially sought only small protection fees during location filming etc., became involved in both the production and distribution in the late 1980s. In order to maximize profits they have at times sought to cast Hong Kong’s biggest stars in their films, such as Andy LAU, Leslie CHEUNG, or CHOW Yunfat. The appearance of such a start guaruntees a high return, but often the stars are unwilling to appear in such productions. This unwillingness has led in the past to criminal intimidation and assault on the film stars and/or their agents – who have been mostly unwilling to report the events to Police.

39In one such incident, the office of film and pop music star Andy LAU was criminally damaged and his manager threatened with a firearm, after he refused to accept a contract with one triad backed film company (Booth, 1999).

40In another incident, a producer from a triad backed firm, WONG Long-wai, was stabbed to death and then later killed in his hospital bed with a single gun shot to the head. This is allegedly to have been revenge by the Sun Yee On for WONG’s slapping the face of the late film and pop star Anita MUI, when she refused to sing at a party that WONG was attending. It was only a few months later that the notorious Tiger of Wanchai (CHAN Yiu-hing), a senior Sun Yee On member, was shot and killed in his car, supposedly for the ordering the murder of WONG.

41As Booth (1999) points out, the criminal influence of the triads in the film industry has lessened, mostly due to the increased vigilance of the Police and unification of the industry against the criminal elements. It has by no means been eliminated however, with some of the largest film makers in Hong Kong today still having strong triad affiliations. This is a likely reason as to why the film industry in Hong Kong tends to glamorize the triad lifestyle through gangster inspired epics.

42Gambling is yet another sector with which the triads have brought much strife to in recent times. In Macau – in view of the then impending return of Macau to Chinese rule, a turf war erupted between the 14K and Wo On Lok in 1996, involving the jockeying for control of the casinos’ high roller VIP rooms. Control of the rooms, legitimately franchised from casino mogul Stanley HO, and their peripheral flesh trade and loansharking, are very profitable and can earn up to HK$ 250,000 a night (Booth, 1999).

43The ensuing fight for control resulted in more than a dozen people being killed, and scores being injured. It also resulted in a serious drop in tourism, and a period of instability for the small enclave. The selfproclaimed and alleged head of the 14K in Macau was eventually arrested in 1997, “Broken Tooth Kui”, and he is now serving a sentence of 15 years imprisonment (LIU, 2001).

44The involvement of the triads in illegal narcotic distribution and sales has too always been prevalent. In Hong Kong, the Police forced the closure of opium and heroin divans in the 70’s, which forced the drug market onto the streets (CHU, 2000). This lucrative market is most certainly controlled by local triad groups, who use their infrastructure and influence to facilitate distribution, and to reduce the risk of being cheated, robbed, or in fact arrested. The financial rewards in drug trafficking are hundred fold.

45Although the triad’s involvement in heroin trafficking has been established for years, it is only recently that they have become involved with the sales and distribution of psychotropic drugs, such as MDMA (Ecstacy) and Ketamine (Special K, or K-Jai). Since realizing the large demand for these drugs, and the large profits to be made, the triads have used their infrastructure and organizational skills to an alarming degree of efficiency. Sources from the Police indicate that the triads may even cooperate and sub-contract among each other so as to achieve the most efficient and profitable mode of distribution. As a result, the availability of these drugs on the streets has increased significantly, and prices have dropped. This is borne out by the seizures made by the Police as seen below.

Seizure of Illicit Drugs (Weights in kilograms unless otherwise stated)

Seizure of Illicit Drugs (Weights in kilograms unless otherwise stated)

* All figures for 2004 are provisional figures only.

46Apart from these examples of the triads economically driven modus operandi, several recent events on the political map in Hong Kong have suggested that there is an unsavory relationship, albeit mostly unproven and very undefined, between some members of the Mainland Government and the triad bosses in Hong Kong.

47In particular, allegations this year stated that the triads have been involved in political intimidation, as part of an organized campaign to silence outspoken individuals in the media. In May the Director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, quoting a reliable source, claimed in the media that the Chinese Ministry of State and Security and local triads were behind the intimidation of outspoken radio hosts, namely Albert CHENG King-hon and Allen LEE Peng-fei.

48Albert CHENG was the influential host of the controversial Commercial Radio talk-show “Teacup in a Storm”, a phone-in style program which examined issues effecting Hong Kong citizens, and which often directed criticism openly at the Hong Kong Government or the Mainland authorities. CHENG left the program after stating that he felt “suffocated by political depression”. He was replaced by Allen LEE Peng-fei, who also left after little more than a week, stating that he could “no longer speak his mind freely”. LEE also resigned from his position on the National People’s Congress.

49Another outspoken talk-show host of the program “Close Encounters of Political Kind”, Raymond WONG Yuk-man, also left his show at this time.

50The exact details remain unclear, and the talk-show hosts have been reluctant to provide details of the intimidation to the authorities, but sources cultivated by the press indicate that a prominent entertainment industry businessman with extensive triad connections had made serious and credible threats against the hosts. The businessman had apparently been an envoy on behalf of the Mainland Government, which had been unhappy at the contents of the hosts’ programs.

51This was a blow to the freedom of speech in Hong Kong, and its fledgling attempts at democratization, but most interesting from the point of view of this paper, is the use once again of triads in a political framework. Particularly in terms of a historical context, it raises the question of whether a relationship between the Mainland Government and the triads still exists?

52This is compounded even further if you view these developments in light of the shocking historical comments made in May of 1997 by the former Deputy Secretary General of Xinhua (China’s defacto embassy in Hong Kong prior to the handover), when he said that he had “befriended” Hong Kong’s triad bosses and had advised them that China would turn a blind eye to their illegal activities if they would promise to keep peace after the handover (Dannen, 1997).

53Still further, in 1984, just prior to reaching a handover agreement with Britain on the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, DENG Xiaoping hinted several times that “not all triads are bad, many of them were good, and many are patriots” (Booth, 1999). Earlier he had pointedly said that Hong Kong could rule itself as long as its administrators were Chinese patriots. Was there a connection?

Threat to Public Security

54Succeeding the mid-90s, and particularly since the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, the amount of triad related crime in the city seems to have dropped. Figures supplied by the Hong Kong Police, as listed below, show that as a proportion of overall crime, triad related offences have dropped to 2.6% by the first half of this year.

* Figures supplied by Hong Kong Police Force

55The Hong Kong Police deserve much credit for this perceived drop in triad activity, as they have and continue to treat the fight against triads as an operational priority. From my own personal experience, having worked previously in the Organized Crime and Triad Bureau for three years, I am fully aware of the efforts required by officers in this field.

56Particularly as of late, anti-triad units have been regularly mounting intelligence-led operations targeting key triad personalities and activities, and attacking their sources of incomes. Officers believe that the success of these operations have contributed to the low level of triad-related cases being reported to police.

57As gleaned from recent media reports, the Hong Kong Police mounted two large-scale undercover operations, turning overt in 2004, which resulted in the successful neutralizing of a number of triad-controlled vice syndicates that were active in the Kowloon area, restraining a total of HK$45M in crime proceeds. The estimated monthly turnover of the syndicates was more than HK$12M.

58The Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, Mr. LEE Ming-kwai, announced recently that the Police had adopted a series of measures to continue the fight against triads, including the:

  • Strengthening the Police intelligence network and enhancing cooperation amongst units at all levels;

  • Enhancing professionalism in the response to and investigation of triad-related incidents;

  • Continuation of strategic undercover operations;

  • Proactively targeting key triad personalities and activities;

  • Optimizing the use of the Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance in investigating triad related cases;

  • Continuation in exchanging intelligence with the Mainland and Macau authorities as well as overseas law enforcement agencies.

59As one can see then, the Hong Kong Police do place great emphasis on the control of triad related crime, and in suppressing the fraternities themselves. They have had successes, but nonetheless fragmentation the triads continue to persist as the main criminal opposition in Hong Kong.


60Historically the triads originated out of the perceived need of the Haan people to defy and overthrow Manchurian rule. Their role at that time was political, but in due course they were called to arms and were instrumental in several rebellions.

61Upon the eventual departure of the Manchurians and the establishment of a republic in 1912, the triad bodies quickly turned from political activists to criminal gangs.

62As political events unfolded in the Mainland, many of the triads fled to Hong Kong, appearing there as early as the mid-1800s. By the 1930’s eight main groups had formed within the territory, making up 8-9% of the population.

63Government and Police corruption likely provided for a lucrative and easy time for the triads up until the advent of the anti-corruption Police in the mid-1970s.

64Today the triad societies are very much economically driven, and for that reason, have fragmented to a great extent. The three main societies existing today are the 14K, the Sun Yee On, and the Wo Shing Wo. Their illegal activities are extensive, including trafficking in dangerous drugs, general extortion, gambling, and prostitution to name but a few.

65The Hong Kong Police have continually increased their efforts and resources in the combat of the triads, with the amount of triad related crimes on the decline in past years. By the first half of this year, only 2.6% of all crimes reported in Hong Kong were triad affiliated.


66Despite continued Police action against the triads, and their slow erosion through fragmentation, they still continue to be a significant criminal element, both locally and internationally. Recent events in Hong Kong illustrate that they live on as a criminal fraternity, and yet incredibly there are those in authority who still believe that the triads are patriots.

67The population of triads in Hong Kong significantly outnumber the Police Force of 28,000 members. Should the fragmented groups ever be brought together under a centralized command, they would pose a very real threat to the order and stablity of Hong Kong. As remote as this possibility is, the Police need to continue in their attempts to further monitor and eradicate these criminal fraternities. This may become a more daunting task should the relationship between the Mainland authorities and the triads in Hong Kong deepen.



Morgan, W.P. (1960). Triad Societies in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Government Press.

Booth, M. (1999). The Dragon Syndicates. London: Transworld Publishers.

Liu, T.M. Benjamin (2001). The Hong Kong Triad Societies: Before and After the 1997 Change-over. Hong Kong: Net e-Publishing Ltd.

Chu, Y.K. (2000). The Triads as Business. London: Routledge.

Hong Kong Police Annual Review (2003). Hong Kong: Hong Kong Government Printers.

Dannen, F. (1997). Partners in Crime. (On-line).

Table des illustrations

Titre Seizure of Illicit Drugs (Weights in kilograms unless otherwise stated)
Légende * All figures for 2004 are provisional figures only.
Fichier image/jpeg, 188k
Légende * Figures supplied by Hong Kong Police Force
Fichier image/jpeg, 23k


BSc (Hons), MSc
Todd Bancroft has been employed by the Hong Kong Police for the past 14 years, where he has performed a wide range of duties relating to the investigation and prosecution of organized and serious crime. He is currently the officer in charge of Interpol Hong Kong’s Extradition Unit. He has a MSc on Forensic and Legal Psychology, University of Leicester.
His presentation of the main honking based triads shows us how difficult the eradication of these gangs is difficult while some people in the authorities still believe that they are ‘patriots’

© Institut de recherche sur l’Asie du Sud-Est contemporaine, 2007

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